Category Archives: Pantomimes & other seasonal shows

Peter Pan

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Steveange on 16 December).

The trouble with staging JM Barrie’s classic children’s story at Chrstmastime can be that it either tips too far into established pantomime territory, or lacks any seasonal feeling. Chris Jordan’s version, new to East Anglia, manages to tread the tightrope with a flourish. There’s a nice London street opening, with a a medley of music-hall songs and dances, led by Paul Laidlaw who we meet again later as Mrs Smee. This also serves to introduce the Darling family with the household head (Tom Lister) displaying the arrogance which will also colour his Captain Hook.

Settings are simple but effective with attractive costumes by Shelley Claridge and very well lit by Douglas Morgan. The band – tucked away stage left in a sort of theatre-box – is led by James Cleeve. The put-upon Mrs Darling is played by Sinead Long, who later transforms into the Mermaid. That bolshie fairy Tinker Bell whirls across the stage on roller-skates; Amanda Coutts balances her resentment of Wendy credibly with her affection for Peter.

Ewan Goddard depicts him as a youth with a sense of right and wrong but no real feelings of the sort which might drag him into the human world. He and Lister play off each other cleverly, with Laura Baldwin’s Wendy nicely suggesting a girl who has to take on rather more adult responsibilities than she had bargained for. Choreographers Twist & Pulse (aka Ashley Glazebrook and Glen Muphy) contribute a pair of less than competent members of Hook’s crew. With Aidan O’Neill’s Smee they lead the comedy scenes.

Laidlaw is an audience favourite at this theatre and knows just how far he can go with the involvement of the unsuspecting man selected for Mrs Smee’s amorous attention. The crocodile is a wondrous creation, and the submerged glitter pool from which the mermaid emerges in the second act is another effective touch. The four adult members of the ensemble and the juvenile performers carry off their routines with aplomb.

Peter Pan runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 22 January. Check the theatre’s website ((gordon-craig.co.uk) for performances times.

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Jack and the Beanstalk

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 15 December)

What can you do with a favourite pantomime story which both keeps the traditional narrative flow and yet brings it into an unusual context? Richard Gauntlett as writer, director and Dame with costume designer Kisteen Wythe and choreographer Dee Jago seem to have re-discovered the magic formula with a Jack and the Beanstalk given a country’n’western makeover. We’re in prospecting country sometime in the late 1890s.

Another twist is that the Giant is not the main villain of the piece, rather that’s his boss Phineas P Stinkworthy. As this extremely dodgy and mercenary character is played by Wayne Sleep, he really gives the good guys a run for their money, let alone their ultimate success. What’s more, Sleep not only shows that he can still do fast turns from one side of the stage to the other – he also contributes a show-stopping tap number.

Gauntlett knows just how to play Dame; Nigella Trottalot runs the eponymous cattle and chicken ranch with minimal assistance from her sons Jack (David Burilin) and Billy (Ben Langley). Langley measures up to the comedy sequences, including the ghosties and ghoulies scene and the kitchen slop scene. Burilin conveys a nice sense of Oklahoma!-style naïveté, like that musical’s hero Curly, as he does his best to be helpful while wooing Jolene (Mira Ormale), the daughter of David Gant’s Sheriff Hiccup. Their voices blend together extremely well.

Pantomime fairies come in all shapes and guises these days. Here we have saloon proprietress Dolly, who arrives air-borne and runs an establishment which patently caters for our its frequenters’ needs. Harriet Bunton lays on the glitter as well as the required brashness to good effect. led by David Carter makes a sparkling contribution to thhe song and dance numbers. It’s all enough to send one out of the theatre prepared to go out West the very next day. Top marks to all concerned.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 15 January. Check the theatre website (theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk) for performance times.

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Robinson Crusoe & the Pirates of the Caribbean

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 13 December)

If you’re a paid-up members of the Brian Conley fan-club, you’ll probably revel in this extended cabartet act. If you’re not, then you might have probelms with this not altogether family-friendly pantomime. Yes, there is a story (when Conley allows it to intrude) and several performers who manage to hold their own.

I defy anyone to come between Davbid Robbins’ Mrs Crusoe and his/her audience. Alex Bourne’s swashbuckling villain of pirate captain Blqckheart and a woefully underused Suzy Bastone (Polly), who has a very good voice, an engaging personality and really doesn’t deserve to be Conley’s fall-guy.

The actual production values are first-rate; good special effects, lavish costumes for the ensemble and forceful choreography by Elliot Nixon. There is a proper script (Michael Harrison) and what could have been integrated direction from Kathryn Rooney. The Twins FX arte responsible for a superb Kraken which looms out over the audience towards the end of the first act. Musical direction is by David Lane and the effective set designs are by Ian Westbrook.

And of course there’s Gok Wan as the Spirit of the Ocean, all sea-shell glitter and sparkle. Wan employs a clever mixture of borderline camp with the ability to hold his own on-stage whoever is trying to “throw him”; his scenes with Conley are an object lesson in how to fight your own (stage right) corner. All in all, this is a curate’s egg of a Christmas show, one which could be thoroughly enjoyable given a title character prepared to give as well as take.

Robinson Crusoe & the Pirates of the Caribbean runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 8 January. Check the theatre’s websites (thecliffspavilion.co.uk/southendtheatres.org.uk) for performance times.

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Beauty and the Beast

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 11 December)

It’s proving to be the most popular pantomime story this Christmas. Chris Hannon has come up with yet another version of the Beauty and the Beast story for Karen Simpson’s production. We’re vaguely in the Middle Ges where the villagers are torn between half-believing the stories about a beast terrorising the old abbey gardens and working out how to exploit this as a tourist attraction.

Belle (Louise Olley) has been selected (though of course she doesn’t know it yet) by green-fingered, pink-wellie-booted Fairy Blossom (Leonie Spilsbury) to undo the curse laid on a too-selfishly preening Lord Leopold (Sebastian Hill) by the evil Elvira (Britt Lenting). All three have good voices, as does Hill, when he gets the chance.

Designs are by rebecca Lee with a fine sequence of sets and a very good costume for the beast; the mask is particularly effective. The young chorus sing and dance to fill the stage thoroughly professionally. Belle is no meek girl in Olley’s characterisation; she needs to be strong because her father is a has-been touring actor Sir Kenneth Branflakes (Martin Neely) and cake-shop proprietor Molly Muffintop (Eamonn Fleming) has her own agenda.

Fleming is a Dame very much of the no-nonsense school; he works well off the audience as does Michael Lapham as dopey Barney Muffintop. Lenting commands the stage in her numbers; musical director Ward Baker makes good use of the choice of favourite – but always appropriate to the situation numbers. Julia Cave’s choreograpy and Jake Taylor’s lighting add to the fairy-tale atmosphere. There’s good use of amplified sound at atrategic moments by Andy Hinton.

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury st Edmunds until 15 January. Check the theatre’s website (theatreroyal.org) for performance times.

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Treasure Island

(reviewed at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich on 10 December)

Red Rose Chain likes to strike out on its own path for its Christmas show; this year it’s Joanna Carrick’s adaptation of the RL Stevenson adventure classic. Carrick’s script is faithful to the story, so her three-actor production might well be a trifle too violent and noisy for very young audience members.

We begin with Gideon (Ryan Penny), a hapless cleaner for a rehearsal space. Mandy (Claire Lloyd) soon puts him right. Considerable knockabout later, we’re into the story proper, as young Jim, the blustering Squire Trelawney and the pragmatic Dr Livesey set sail from Bristol in search of Captain Flinet’s treasure.

Of course, one of their major problems is that the seemingly helpful ship’s cook Long John Silver and his shipmates are on the same quest. Lloyd, Joel Macey and Penny swap roles and “improvise” locations at a bewildering rate, though much of the detail as well as the fast-moving narrative comes across clearly.

The ad-hoc elements of the design (steel drums, packing cases table-cloths for sails and so on) add to the illusion, as do Laura Norman’s sound effects and Jimmy Grimes’ puppets – Silver’s parrot is a particular audience favourite – but don’t get too close; he might bite!). David Newborn’s lighting adds considerable to the atmosphere, which is not an easy task given that the audience sits on three side of the acting area.

Treasure Island runs at the Avenue Theatre, Ipswich until 2 January (check the theatre website (redrosechain.com) for performance times).

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Stoat Hall

(reviewed at the SirJohn Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 9 December)

Eastern Angles’ Christmas show is a Pat Whymark and Julian Harries confection, which means that it’s literate, tuneful and lethally clever – at times a little too much so for its own good. There’s a lot of cod as well as real Shakespeare and a whole series of riffs to do with Richard III and Henry VIII, not to mention tranches of East Anglian as well as national history, legend, might-have-beens and architecture.

That all means that I thoroughly enjoyed Stoat Hall, but perhaps partly because it tweaked some of my own interests. There’s an extremely hard-working cast of five, switching stage gender as adroitly as role, costume and set accessories. At the centre of the imbroglio is poor Sir Roger (Richard Mainwaring) who has the misfortune to have close blood ties to both the last Plantagent and the second Tudor kings.

Not to mention a crone of a grand-mother Agnes (Violet Patton-Ryder), a wilful wife and a daughter who takes after her (Geri Allen in both roles), a love-sick jester Perch (Matt Jopling) and a sinister in-house alchemist John Dee (Patrick Neyman, who also plays the second, stroppily butch daughter Hedwig). When Henry arrives on a wife-hunting mission, things start going even more wrong.

The music is suitably 16th century pastiche; the cast provide the instrumental accompaniments. Designer Richard Evans works his own particular magic with a very small acting area, ornamented by a whole series of pop-up and pop-out puppets. Not to mention an interesting variation on an autopsy. Don’t worry, no animals (two- or four-legged) were hurt during the procedure.

Stoat Hall runs at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich until 7 January. It then plays at the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge between 10 and 21 January and at the Key Theatre Studio, Peterborough from 24 to 28 January. Check the theatre’s website (easternangles.co.uk) for performance times.

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Beauty and the Beast

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 8 December)

This year’s seasonal production boasts another of Andrew Pollard’s intelligently ear-engaging scripts; this time he and director Eleanor Rhode have tweaked the familiar story to produce what one might describe as pared-down panto. The format works very well, with a predominantly schools audience at the performance which I saw being thoroughly engrossed in the story’s nuances.

We’re in fin de siècle Paris. Spice merchant M Marzipan (Neil Stewart) needs to replenish his stock of sugar urgently, but he lacks the cash to do so until his ship (literally) comes home. In the meantime his younger daughter Soufflé (Jill McAusland) is spending money at luxury boutiques regardless, while his sister Amorette (Arabella Rodrigo) has her nose in a book most of the time.

Also in need of sugar is sweet-vendor Betty Bonbon (Terence Frisch) – you are going to learn quite a lot of French when she’s on stage. Frisch is an experienced Dame, one who knows just how to milk an audience, whatever its age group. Stewart plays well off him, notably in the second-act slop scene – well, you try making a sugarless cake! The point is that the majority of the characters come over as people, not just types.

Manipulating the action is the nasty Spite (Hollie Cassar), a witch of the first water who can put over a nifty tap-dance as well as her songs. Trying to counter her is Charlie Cupid (Dale Mathurin), a demi-god who would rather be an ordinary mortal. As I said, there are novel twists in this version of the story. Cursed by Spite, it’s no wonder that Robbie Smith’s Beast has grown morose and vengeful.

Cleo Petitt’s sets and costumes work well, with slightly distorted angles to the Beast/Prince’s castle and a clever black-theatre sequence when Marzipan and Bonbon find themselves at the castle, thanks to Cupid. This tytpe of staging proves that you don’t necessarily need a song-and-dance ensemble or a juvenile troupe to fill the stage. After all, theatre is magic – and when more so than at Christmas?

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 312 January. Check the theatre website (watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk) for performance times.

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Dick Whittington and His Cat

(reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 6 December)

Tradition – a principal boy, the story set firmly in 1375, a slop scene – meets innovation in this version by Al Morley and Matt Crosby, directed by Carole Todd and choreographed by Kevan Allen. It has a strong cast with Holly Easterbrook as a dashing and boyish Dick and Paul Nicholas as a dominating King Rat, with wider than mere mayoral ambitions.

Our harassed merchant plagued with rats is Robert Duncan as Alderman Fitzwarren. Rhiannon Porter plays his daughter Alice; it is her birthday present from her father of a necklace which is stolen from his safe. Crosby has written a starring part for himself as Sarah and his son Idlle Jack (Robert Rees) lives up to his name by collapsing every time the word “work” is mentioned.

That slop scene mentioned above is in the ship’s galley, tilting ferociously in the storm – one could feel a trifle seasick watching it!. Act One ends with a spectacular white, gold and silver production number; no set designer is credited, but Sue Simmerling’s costumes and Mike Robertson’s lighting combine to fine effect.

King Rat’s main opponent is of course Fairy Bowbells (Dawn Hope). Hope’s slinky, glittering dress mirrors her brisk personality; this is a street-wise guardian for London. That also goes for Daniel Cummins as Tommy the Car. Here we have a moggie that talks as well, as miaous – not always effectively be it said. Catman indeed!

The adult ensemble do full justice to Allen’s choreography, supplemented by a well-rehearsed troupe of panto babes; they make excellent ratlings as well as young Londoners with perhaps just a hint of Fagin’s gang about their activities. Costumes for the dance numbers make a strong impact, so there’s plenty for the senior members of the audience to enjoy as well as their juniors.

Dick Whittington and His Cat runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 8 January. Check the theatre website (cambridgeartstheatre.com) for performance times.

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Cinderella

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 5 December)

 

This is probably the favourite pantomime story, which raises high empectations in its audiences. The magic trick is to blend the familiar, much-loved rags-to-riches story with enough variations to spice it up while never smothering its essence. Andrew Pollard’s script in Martin Berry’s production manages to achieve just that balance.

The Queen’s Theatre tradition of using actor-musicians comes into its own – Natasha Lewis’ Cinderella must be the only trombone-playing one  in this year’s national crop. Jonathan Charles’ Dandini is a wandering fiddle-player, taken on by Jamie Noar’s Prince Charming, desperately trying to disentangle himself from his father’s plans for his future.

No Baron Hardup in this version. Rather, we have his spiteful widow (Georgina Field) keeping her two chip-off-the-matriachal-block daughters Miley (Simon Pontin) and Kylie (Carl Patrick) very much under her sharp-nailed thumb. No wonder the household is reduced to a single servant, Buttons (Alex Tomkins), who only stays because of Cinderella.

Mark Walters has designed a deceptively sumptuous set and costumes in a vaguely late 18th century style. Joshua Good man is the hard-working musical director, joined in the pit by Al Twist and Sarah Workman, and the on-stage cast. Field has a commanding way with a saxaphone, even when Liz Marsh’s choeography keeps her feet fully employed.

That all-important wow! factor comes also from Etisyai Philip’s Fairy Godmother, who manipulates the whole story, including Cinderella’s swan-drawn carriage as she leaves for the ball. Sherry Coenen’s lighting adds to the magical impression. Highlights include a well-handled rejection scene for Buttons and Cinderella, to which both of them bring the right degree of sincerity.

Well-loved gag scenes also make their appearnace, including the endless stocking and false foot in the slipper trying-on episode, Cinderella being made totear up her coveted invitation to the ball (by her step-mother, rather than step-sisters here) and locking her in a chest (even less comfortable than the usual cellar) in the attempt to hide her from her questing prince.

Cinderella runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 14 January. Check the theatre’s website (queens-theatre.co.uk) for performance times.

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Dick Whittington

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 3 De ember)

 

The book for this year’s Mercury pantomime is by Fine Time Fontayne and the theatre’s arttistic director Daniel Buckroyd, who is also responsible for the staging. Both the sets and scene drops are by David Shields; his costumes are colourful with some marvellously over-the-top wigs for Antony Stuart-Hicks’ Sarah the Cook. Stuart-Hicks has a flirtatious way with the audeince, suggestive of high camp but always remembering the younger members of the audience.

Two theatre favourites are in the cast – Dale Superville as Idle Jack and Ignatius Anthony as Rayy King, a tycoon with a novel approach to rodent recycling and designs on the London mayoral dignity. Fairy Bow-Bells (Barbara Hockaday) needs all her magic to keep his amibitions in check. Fortunately naîve country-boy Dick (Glen Adamson) has his own aide, in the shape of Gracie Lai’s zebra-striped black-and-white Thomasina, indeed a moggie with attitude.

Grace Eccle makes a charming Alice with Richard Earl bumbling around in his spice emporium as Alderman Fitzwarren. Three hallowed gag scenes – cake-making in the kitchen, “The twelve days of Christmas” and the bench ghost – are all given a novel twist (I won’t spoil their impact by describing these – find out for yourself!) and Charlie Morgan’s choreography makes a real impact. Musical director Richard Reeday provides some sympathetic accompaniments.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 8 January. Check the theatre website (mwrcurytheatre.co.uk) for performance times.

 

 

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Jack and the Beanstalk

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 3 December)

It’s billed as “a giant of a pantomime” and this One From The Heart production measures up to that description. Simon Aylin’s script falls tidily on the ear and Kerris Peeling’s direction keeps the action fast moving. Damian Czarnecki’s choreography gives excellent opportunities to both the ensemble (from Laine Theatre Arts) and the local juvenile dancers.

Costumes are bright and the fary-tale book sets have the right suggestion of not-quite real. Ben Ellis Strathie makes a dashing Jack with David McKechnie’s Fleshcreep as a worthy opponent, eminently hissable. Neil Bromley’s Dame Trott is in the traditional mould, trying (and failing) to keep both Jack and his brother Silly Billy (Samuel Parker) under her thumb. Both quickly establish an excellent rapport with the audience,

Daisy the cow knows how to dance (has she perhaps been watching the Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School?) and uses her doe eyes and long, long lashes to good effect. Gabriela Gregorian is Jill, a princess who knows her own mind – not necessarily following her father (Stephen McGlynn)’s instructions. Trying the lead the forces of good is Katie Brennan as Fairy Nuff, not the brighest student at fairy school, but willing to persevere.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 2 January. Check the website (chelmsford.gov.uk/theatres) for performance times.

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Sinbad

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 29 November)

Trust Peter Rowe and the New Wolsey Theatre to come up with a variation on the traditional pantomime. Sinbad is a story which has somehow slipped from the 21st century repertoire, though it was popular in the 19th. Here Rowe has given it his theatre’s regular rock’n’roll treatment – with some unusual twists.

As one expects nowadays, the heroine is no languishing miss; Pricess Pearl (Daniella Piper) knows exactly what (and who) she wants – and that certainly doesn’t include her father the Caliph (Daniel Carter Hope)’s selection of wealthy magician Sinistro (Dan de Cruz) as her husband. Her put-upon handmaiden Jade (Lucy Wells) is also a lass with a mind of her own.

The trouble for both girls is that sailors are slippery creatures, none more so than Sinbad himself (Steve Rushton) and his bosun (Adam Langstaff). Running away to sea might have seemed an easy option on dry land, but once sails are set… Also on board are Sinbad’s mother Donna Souvlakia (Graham Hent) – no prizes for guessing just which foodstuffs this raucous Dame purveys!

Particularly interesting is the second comic role – Tinbad the Tailor, an erudite nod by Rowe and the excellent Rob Falconer in the direction of James Joyce. He comes close to stealing the whole show with his sly wooing of think-I-can-do-better Donna. Our story-teller is, of course, Scheherezade (Elizabeth Rowe), an engaging dea ex machina.

All three girls sing well, as does Rushton and (when he is finally allowed to let rip) de Cruz. Darragh O’leary’s choreography is of the step, shuffle, turn school, though the eyelash-fluttering dromendary (well, it makes a change from a cow) manages some nifty footwork. Puppets, as New Wolsey audiences now expect, pop up from grave-traps and gaps in the flats; the designer is Barney George.

Sinbad runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 28 January. Check the website wolseytheatre.co.uk for performance date and time details.

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